Abolish the Diploma
Imagine the following HS requirements being recommend to the School Board:
• 3 years of economics and business
• 2 courses in philosophy – one in logic, the other in ethics
• 2 years of psychology, with special emphasis on child development and family relations
• 2 years of mathematics, focusing on probability and statistics
• 4 years of Language Arts, but with a major focus on semiotics and oral proficiency
• US and World history, taught as Current Events - backwards from the present
• 1 Year of Graphics Design, Desktop Publishing, and Multimedia presentation
Outrageous? Hardly – if we do an analysis of what most graduates actually need and will use in professional, civic, and personal life. How odd it is that we do not require oral proficiency when every graduate will need the ability. How absurd it is in this day and age that students aren’t required to understand the capitalist system. How sad it is that physics is viewed as more important than psychology, as parents struggle to raise children wisely and families work hard to understand one another. Requirements based on pre-modern academic priorities and schooling predicated on the old view that few people would graduate and fewer still would go on to college make no sense. Ask any adult: how much algebra did you use this past week?
Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of my classical education at St. John’s College. I learned physics through Newton’s Principia and geometry through Euclid and Lobachevski - in a college program with no electives. I had a fine general education, one truly deserving of the title Liberal Arts (the arts that make you free). But would I mandate that all colleges look like St. John’s? Absolutely not – no more than I would mandate that all schools be required to adopt my proposed new graduation requirements, above – even though they make more sense than current ones.
We are once again confusing standards with standardization in education. Our misguided quest for a set of one-size-fits-all requirements shows that we do not yet know how to make education modern – i.e. client-centered; adapted to an era where the future, not the past, properly determines curricula; and where the future is re-invented regularly, and far more personalizable than our forebears dreamed possible.
Why does everyone need the same medicine? It is absurd to mandate standardized prescriptions in a pluralistic democracy. Enforced uniformity, whether required in school or a country, has no place in a modern world. Student interests, needs, talents, and aspirations differ. Communities differ. Institutional requirements differ. Twenty-first century schools should be more like healthcare organizations than medieval guilds or nineteenth century factories. In other words, they should be responsive to individual clients and their present and future needs. (We badly need a Hippocratic Oath for schooling: Above All Else, Do No Harm.)
My point made more practical is that a single set of diploma requirements for all makes no sense. At a time in history when a political and social revolution is sweeping the country whereby people exercise choice – in healthcare, job choice, living arrangements - it is odd and out of touch for local, state, and national educational policymakers seem bent on inventing a one-size-fits all diploma. Why can't a kid major, just like they do in college? (Florida was the first state to permit it, but it is still a timid effort).
We probably do not need the conventional diploma on the low-level grounds of college entry. Arnold Packer put it well in the SCANS report over a decade ago: students should graduate with a résumé, not a transcript. That gets right the obligation of schools in a democracy to better play to the strengths and interests of its students. I would go further, to draw out what is implicit in the idea: schools should stop giving a diploma at the end of “12th grade” all together. Schools should merely report out each student’s achievement profile – their intellectual strengths, weaknesses, and levels of performance on novice-expert continua for each subject each year. Let the (aptly differing) entry standards of the student-desired next institutions dictate what course selection and exit-performance-level “passing” need to be.
Standards and requirements are nothing if not contextual. So-called requirements are thus more aptly characterized as “if-then” statements about very diverse entry-level requirements: IF you want to be a scholar, THEN certain requirements follow. But IF you want to be a lawyer, a businessperson, a musician, an actor, or an electrician, THEN very different needs follow. Not being able to predict each student’s likely profession does not change the fact that schools should treat students as subjects, not uniform objects. Teachers, not just doctors, must more vigorously broker personalized possibilities.
We should no more mandate what all schools should teach and require in the way of performance than we should mandate what all businesses should sell and their margin of profit. Modern schools would then be no different from modern professions in a crucial sense. They, too, would serve niches. All schools should be magnet schools, charter schools, and alternative schools – if we want to make schools more responsive, effective, and coherent.
(This is an updated version of an article I wrote a decade ago. It seems even more pertinent now. The editor of Ed. Leadetrship apparently agrees: a revised and updated version will be published in the March 2011 issue of the ASCD journal.